PARIS and ISTRES, France --- Europe’s Neuron Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle made its first flight on Dec. 1, demonstrating European industry’s ability to build a stealthy attack drone and reminding European politicians that follow-on programs are urgently needed to maintain this critical capability.
The Neuron’s first flight marks both the first time Europe has flown a stealth aircraft, and the first time it has flown a UCAV, two especially significant, if belated, milestones for Europe’s military aviation industry which, for the past three decades, has mostly been working to refine three fighter aircraft – Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon - whose designs originated in the 1980s.
The timing of Neuron’s first flight is especially appropriate as Britain, France and Germany are preparing a series of decisions that will influence their policies in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles for years, if not decades, to come. The Neuron partners hope the milestone will persuade governments to extend the program, and to further explore the design’s operational capabilities.
France and Germany are expected to announce several joint defense initiatives in January, when they will mark the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, while the French and British governments are expected to expand their fledgling joint UAV initiatives soon after France’s new government publishes its new defense white paper in the New Year.
In parallel, French and German industry is trying to head off a possible joint procurement by the two countries of General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, a move they fear would dry up available funding for unmanned programs.
Dassault Aviation, prime contractor of the Neuron program, and its industry team from five European countries hope that the Neuron’s first flight will act as a catalyst, encouraging governments to pool and coordinate their UAV initiatives. As a first step, they are keen for a follow-on program, informally dubbed Neuron 2, which would convert the aircraft to a more capable configuration and allow an extensive operational evaluation of its capabilities.
“We are flexible, and we will adapt to government wishes for the choice of future partners,” Eric Trappier, Dassault Aviation’s senior vice-president for international affairs said Nov. 26. In addition to Neuron, Dassault is currently teamed with BAE Systems to study a future Anglo-French unmanned combat air vehicle, and the two companies are also exploring the feasibility of developing a MALE UAV for the two countries.
Cassidian, the defense and security unit of EADS, has instead been pushing for a joint Franco-German MALE program, but there now appears to be a new willingness for the three countries’ industries to work together to develop and maintain a UAV-related know-how.
Meanwhile, as governments mull their future UAV strategies and investments, Neuron is the only large, European-designed UAV, as well as the only European stealth aircraft flying, Trappier notes, and no other European company can point to similar achievements.
Neuron’ early morning first flight lasted 25 minutes, and verified the basic flight phases: automatic taxi, runway alignment, take-off, approach, and landing; high-speed run; turns, climbs and shallow dives. Neuron also explored part of its flight envelope, up to a speed of about 150 knots and an altitude of 2,000 ft.
Neuron will now be trucked to the DGA’s Centre de l’Electronique de l’Armement (defense electronics center) near Rennes, in Brittany for a four-month evaluation of its signatures (radar, IR, ultraviolet, optical, etc.) using CELAR’s anechoic chamber. The aircraft will then return to Istres, where it will resume its flight test program in April.
The Neuron flight test program is scheduled to continue until mid-2014, and will culminate in the dropping of a bomb from its internal weapon bay onto a target identified and located by its on-board sensors (electro-optical and infra-red) while flying in a simulated combat scenario. It will also include national test-flights by France, Sweden and Italy during which each will evaluate Neuron’s stealth performance against its own air-defense radars and weapons.
Overall, Neuron is expected to make about 100 test flights, each lasting about one hour.
NEURON BACKGROUND NOTES:
- The Neuron technology demonstrator program was announced in 2003, and the related contract was awarded in late 2005. It is worth approximately 400 million euros, of which France is funding half, while the other half is shared between the five other participating governments: Greece (HAI), Italy (Alenia Aermacchi), Sweden (Saab), Spain (EADS CASA) and Switzerland (RUAG).
- The program has a streamlined, inexpensive organization which includes a single executive agency (France’s DGA) and a single industry prime contractor (Dassault Aviation) who awards subcontracts directly to its industry partners. The basic rules adopted for the program were no “just return”; no duplication of work, and work contracted according to companies’ existing know-how, and not according to the know-how they wanted to acquire. These principles are radically new in European cooperative programs, and are credited for having ensured Neuron maintained financial and technological discipline.
- Contrary to most other UAVs now in service, Neuron is not remotely-piloted, but flies a pre-programmed mission with no direct input from the ground. Ground operators' role is limited to oversight, and to authorizing each successive mission phase, although they can also intervene if needed. Flying autonomously is considered to be a useful feature by the Neuron partners because it allows the UCAV to complete its mission even if its command datalink is cut or jammed, whereas RPVs are programmed to fly into the ground if this link is cut.
- Neuron has an empty weight of 5 metric tonnes and a payload of 2 tonnes (fuel + weapons), for a maximum take-off weight of 7 tonnes. It is designed to fly a mission of about 3 hours at speeds of up to Mach 0.8 and altitudes of up to 10,000 meters.
- Its radar signature is compared by Dassault officials to that of a sparrow, and is one of the major features that will be investigated during the coming 18 months.